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Friday
Jan062012

That Away Day Experience

BY ALEX MANBY / @AlexManby

When deciding what to write about for The Arsenal Collective, the first thoughts which sprang to my mind were, predictably, also the most obvious. I am lucky enough to have witnessed, in the flesh, Tony Adams and Patrick Vieira lift a combined four FA Cups and three Premier League trophies. I have seen us beat Barcelona, win in the San Siro, at Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge, Anfield and most other grounds around the country.

I have seen the Arsenal play in half a dozen European countries; I saw Thierry Henry race away from the entire Tottenham team to score at the North Bank; I was there when Dennis Bergkamp broke his Arsenal duck with a spectacular brace against Southampton at the Clock End; I witnessed a now scarcely-recognisable Andrei Arshavin bag four goals up at Anfield; I saw Robin van Persie net three at the Bridge earlier this season.

But the match I want to describe has, I suspect, never been written about on The Arsenal Collective. It ties in with the current festive season and, I hope, encapsulates why an away day with the Arsenal is just such a brilliant experience.

For Christmas 2007, I gave my brother a pair of tickets to the forthcoming FA Cup 3rd Round match away to Burnley, and then immediately suggested he invite me to come along with him, which he did. About two weeks later, at an absurdly early time, we boarded the Travel Club coaches and set off to Turf Moor, via the inevitable hour-long stop in a nondescript service station - Ivan Gazidis should be demanding commission from Moto and Welcome Break!

I remember that day being one of the coldest of the winter, and biting winds were swirling around the Lancashire hills as we got off the coach. We heard the usual prejudiced quips against Northerners and Northern towns, and this mill town, looking like something out of the 19th Century, offered plenty of ammunition for cheeky Gooners.

But I was immediately enamoured with Turf Moor. Like Highbury, the builders seemed to have knocked down the smallest area of terraced houses possible and crammed a football stadium into the space. Such a refreshing change from the identikit modern stadia constructed in commercial estates on the outskirts of town, such as the DW, Britannia or KC.

There were only a couple of turnstiles to squeeze through, and the facilities inside rivalled Fratton Park for simplicity, but this only added to the pre-match build up, with the arriving Gooners in increasingly good voice. Gavin Peacock, who I think is missed as a pundit on MOTD2 since he bizarrely headed off to Canada to become a priest (!), was generous with his time for us and praise for Arsenal and particularly Le Boss, while Mickey - you’ll all know him by face, if not by name - was typically boisterous and, as always, surrounded by kids hoping to steal some of his thunder and get an appearance on the telly.

My brother and I found our seats - or more accurately wooden benches - in the back row of the stand and were chuffed when we realised the Gooners around us were all tanked up on cheap Lancashire lager and in the mood for chanting. The next 90 minutes had little of particular interest as regards the football itself - we won 2-0 with goals from Eduardo and Nicklas Bendtner - but what sticks in the mind is the performance of the travelling support.

Perhaps because everyone was still full of Christmas spirit, or perhaps just because it was so bloody cold, we Gooners gave probably the loudest support I have heard in all my 70-odd away matches. The pinnacle came during a first half, 30-minute, non-stop ‘Arsène Wenger’s red and white army - We hate Tot-num’, during which everyone around me was peeling off layers of clothing because we were all overheating from the exertion.

At half time we sat down on the wooden benches, speechless and panting with exhaustion, and once the final whistle sounded I remember shaking hands and hugging the Gooners around me, so proud and exhilarated were we with what had just happened.

One poignant memory I have of that match is of Eduardo. The game came right in the middle of his best spell for Arsenal, when he was scoring goals with prolific, unerring and uncanny ease, as well as creating them with assists and brilliant decoy runs. I maintain to this day that despite the enormous transfer fees expended on his strike partners over the years, Emmanuel Greedybayor has never benefited so much from playing alongside another striker as he did in those months with Eduardo.

At Turf Moor that day, our Croatian number 9 scored the opener ten minutes in, his sixth goal in four starts, but the most pertinent reminder I can give of how lethal he was at the time was when he missed a one on one early in the second half. There were no gasps of frustration or cries of annoyance, there was just a stunned silence around the ground; no-one could believe that Eddy had actually missed a chance on goal!

Burnley’s Kyle Lafferty was sent off for nasty tackle on Gilberto, and refused to leave the pitch for an age as he remonstrated with the referee. A few weeks later, a similarly late and ugly lunge, this time courtesy of Martin Taylor, effectively ended Eduardo’s Arsenal career.

So my reflections of that day are somewhat melancholic, but the abiding memory I have is of grinning from ear to ear whilst chanting incessantly throughout the match. Arsenal fans are, probably fairly, mocked for being quiet at home matches (although I think there are a fair few teams who are quieter than us…), but our away support is nothing short of sensational, and I’d urge anyone to head along to an away match whenever they can.

And if you get the chance to make that match a trip to Turf Moor, do not miss the opportunity; anyone who went to Highbury will remember with great fondness the crowded shuffle out of the concourse after a match - it is one of the things I miss most. At Burnley we got the chance to re-live that shuffle, our hoarse voices still belting out the famous Arsenal chants we all love so much.

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